An angular hulk of whiteness looms up from a colourful street in Maputo – the Royal Norwegian Embassy, stark and imposing. The guard at the gate wastes no time with perfunctory greetings. ‘Passport?’ I hand it over, and he allows me through into Scandinavia.
Ana Lúcia, producer of Maputo’s contemporary art exhibition Ocupações Temporárias (Temporary Occupations) is waiting by the door of the building. Her presence guarantees hassle-free entry. The embassy’s interior is similarly stark, chairs arranged neatly facing the seat of power, officials shielded behind glass windows.
In front of the glass, a bright green plant in a steel pot brings a contrived gesture of liveliness to this austere space. It seems even less at home than the temporary screen in the corner, on which a series of silent, haunting images flick above two alternating captions.
Suit-clad at a shiny desk in an office exuding pomp and power, a man makes a brief phone call. When finished he rises from his seat, his face and body contorted with excruciating strain that makes it seem, if you’ll pardon my Norwegian, like he is shitting a ton of bricks while balancing another ton on his shoulders.
Across the office a woman enters and sits stiffly on one end of a plush sofa. The perfect picture of prim and proper, her face is a cold slate of blankness, staring straight ahead at the camera as the man staggers towards her. He finally arrives at the couch and manages to lower himself into a curl, his head resting on her lap. Her neck swivels to meet this imposition, then a close-up of her hand reveals a fish hook held beside his sleeping face. The scene changes abruptly to show her standing alone in a dilapidated room, holding up a large fish.
‘Introduçào ao Capricórnio’, begins the caption. ‘Introduction to Capricorn. We will travel to the centre of the anthill of Capricorn. A formidable structure of cement chips and armour in constant degradation, but in its entirety, when seen from a distance, a huge city of Babel, solid and dense. Untouchable. A pyramidal complex in favour of the emperor of Capricorn. At the top of the grey anthill, in the centre and at the zenith of this structure, is the imperial cabinet, symbol of revolution and national power.’
Two more short films maintain this strange, intense texture, simultaneously riveting and unnerving the viewer. A sunburnt albino boy on a barren grey rooftop is slowly approached by a grey-headed monster. A shongololo uncurls in a box. A woman stares sideways out of her window. A framed picture of the emperor’s crumbling face is mounted on a cracked wall. This is Rui Tenreiro’s Journey to the Centre of Capricorn, and the starting point of 2012’s Temporary Occupations exhibition, themed Estrangeiros – Foreigners.
In this annual exhibition of contemporary art, Mozambican artists are invited to occupy unconventional spaces. All the artists in 2012’s Temporary Occupations are Mozambicans who are living or have lived outside the country for long periods of time. Estrangeiros takes place in December, a month in which the city is flooded with foreign visitors. Spaces that represent foreignness are selected for the installations.
From the Norwegian embassy we head to Maputo International Airport, expanded and glistening from its recent make-over courtesy of the Chinese government. In a long hall of steel and glass in between terminals, an unexpected figure towers gracefully in the corner. She is a giant mannequin draped in a 5-metre tunic made of the Palestinian kafiyo cloth that has trended on Maputo’s streets. Over her shoulder and by her feet are bags bearing the logo of Top Score, a popular mealie-meal brand.
Another Fashion is Possible is the title of this installation, produced by Sandra Muendane, a Mozambican designer who lives in Lisbon. We arrive to find a cluster of bemused passerbys staring and taking photos on their phones. Sandra is seated nearby, observing the scene with detached interest.
‘Why an airport?’ I ask her.
‘It’s a peaceful place,’ she responds. In an American airport, she adds, such an installation might evoke feelings quite different from peace – given the association of the cloth with Arab culture, and the association of Arabs with fear. But in Mozambique, this fabric is simply representative of a fashion trend. ‘It’s soft and functional, it’s available in markets – very accessible. When people see this, it’s not something strange, they can relate to it.’
Another Fashion is Possible is explained as ‘a reflection on “originality”. Taking as a starting point everyday objects that constitute our identity, we question who does what is ours, and from where comes what we enunciate as ours, how we appropriate and build our “heritage”’.
Sandra left Maputo twelve years ago. Viewed from the outside, she says, it seems like a place of ‘poor people, big buildings going up fast, people coming from outside and doing things we don’t understand. But Maputo is adapting.’ Another Fashion is Possible speaks to the necessity, and the blurred lines, of societal evolution. It is also a literal statement that fashion, as an industry and a form of expression, can be done differently.
‘It’s not just runways,’ Sandra says. ‘I want fashion that makes people stop and think’.
My mind is buzzing as we move on, with two more installations to come. The fifth installation, Eugenia Mussa’s oil painting titled Fata Morgana, has closed early since its venue, the swanky Crystal Restaurant, shut down for Christmas holidays. Crystal is a popular hang-out for Maputo’s ever-expanding expatriate population, to whom Eugenia brought a visual reminder that: ‘The African landscape in all its grandeur and beauty hides something. Life and death have never been so close. Behind each sheet are memories of those who once inhabited those lands but for whom there is no register. To see them we have to look for them in our intimacy.’
We spend the rest of the afternoon absorbing Temporary Occupations’ efforts to engrave art into the exterior city landscape. Across some of the busiest streets in town, prints of the work of Angolan artist Paulo Kapela are displayed on walls – an eclectic mix of imagery ranging from Spiderman to religious symbols to Coca-Cola logos, and text calling for unity and peace. Many of the prints are partly peeled off, in some places revealing layers of other posters plastered below. People hurry past, a few sparing glances for the artworks, many barely noticing.
But it would be hard for anyone to miss the graffiti mural that stretches across a municipal wall lining the main road between Maputo and its twin town, Matola. A series of paintings, ranging from a little girl clutching a teddy-bear to an eerily eyeless ruler flanked by fire breathing dogs, fuse seamlessly into each other, one hundred metres of colour bursting into the peri-urban landscape. It is the ongoing work of local graffiti master Shot B, initiated as part of last year’s Temporary Occupations exhibition. This particular occupation is, hopefully, permanent.
We return to the city centre where the Portuguese and South African embassies are stationed across the road from each other at the upmarket intersection of Julius Nyerere and Eduardo Mondlane, two of the biggest streets in town. While waiting for the remaining installations, which only run in the evenings, we sit at a sidewalk café eating delicious over-priced ice cream from a gelato shop and delicious under-priced peanuts from young girls vending on the street. The early nightlife goes by, locals and tourists moving around each other with seeming ease, streams of Portuguese and occasional snippets of English mingling in the cool evening air as Maputo’s moneyed set sips on cocktails and beers.
Speaking of beer. But is it art? Of the many uses for beer – which is to say, the many drinking opportunities and an occasional recipe – I would never have considered ‘art’ to be one. So I’m more than a little puzzled to read the exhibition pamphlet’s description of João Petit Graça’s exhibition at the Embassy of Portugal. ‘“Hoyo-Oyoh”, a mirror reading of the expression “Welcome”, is a representation of the dynamics and patterns of the arrival of foreigners in Mozambique seen in the light of beer.’
In the outside lobby of the Portuguese embassy, separated from the street by metal bars whose gate remains open for the duration of the exhibition, João pours beer into a tiny photographic slide, wiping the inevitable spill before inserting it into a projector.
On the wall opposite, the lens magnifies and inverts the slide, showing a host of spheres jostling against each other in the downward rush to their final destination, a layer of translucent bubbles. The layer maintains a definite form without consolidating or reaching equilibrium – every bubble, directly or indirectly, continually displaced by the arrival of another.
The soundtrack of an airport environment plays on loop in the background. But rather than play a recording of the visuals, João is present at the installation for several hours each night, refilling the slide every 20 minutes or so to keep the bubbles fresh. This ‘love-hate relationship’ with his piece is necessary, he explains, to ‘integrate the element of randomness and chance’.
Being of mixed Portuguese and Mozambican heritage, João describes himself as ‘a national in both places, and a stranger in both places’. He is now based in Maputo where, thanks to its booming mineral and energy industries, the country is currently experiencing a surge of immigration – with particularly large numbers coming from Portugal, in search of economic opportunities.
João’s choice of beer to illustrate these dynamics extends beyond the physics of bubbles. ‘There is a drunkenness to the pattern,’ he explains. ‘People are trying to come here as a salvation, but many of them don’t get what they want. We may have some enriching of culture, but also get other social problems, problems with unemployment…’
We are speaking outside on the sidewalk. The airport soundtrack is lost to the hum of the city, where crowds and cars cross each other like the inverted flow of bubbles rolling down the wall inside – seemingly familiar and repetitive, but changing every second.
Across the street, beneath an awning on the lawn of the South African embassy is a neatly-made bed with storybook colours – red duvet with a yellow turnover, sheet and pillow a rich, deep blue. In the perfect centre of the bedside table stands a warm orange lamp, giving the bizarre scene an almost-inviting glow amidst the hushed shades of dusk.
An empty chair stands at an impractical distance from the desk beside the bed, and a pair of loafers rests on the white rug in front of the chair. All the objects in the room are perfectly aligned. It feels like an intimate glimpse into the rigid space of an invisible stranger.
But there is the stranger, on a screen facing the street from one side of the awning. A clock strikes 5:59, and he lies perfectly still as he stares up at the camera from his pillow. The gaze lingers for several seconds, long enough to get uncomfortable, before he rises and methodically gets ready for the day, has breakfast, leaves home and walks to work.
Halfway there, against the concrete backdrop of the city, he meets himself returning from work. He gets back home and repeats the morning’s gestures in reverse, maintaining the same mechanical trudge but with a deeper sense of dreariness, his posture slightly stooped – having dinner, getting ready for bed, neatly folding each item of clothing into the same exact position from which he withdrew them earlier in the day. And then he goes to bed, and when his alarm goes off, we realise that it was all a recurring nightmare.
The film is short and silent, but by the end of it, the understated yet crushing monotony that oozes through the actor’s every gesture and expression leaves you feeling weighed down by the intensity of something we are all familiar with. This final stop on the Estrangeiros journey, Tiago Correia-Paulo’s installation titled 5:59, presents a confrontation of routine, and its subtle associations with hope and disillusionment. It conveys a sense of spiritual alienation from a life drenched in repetitive ennui, where routine quietly stifles the individual while providing the soothing lull of loops of predictability.
‘I like loops,’ says Tiago, who used to play with 340ml and Tumi and the Volume. ‘Even with music, I like it to end where you began.’ The choice of venue is also personally significant. Having lived in South Africa for most of his adult life, he has spent many tedious hours at this embassy in Maputo. Those experiences and the feelings they evoke are infused into the film – frustration with work, with visas, with the relentless routines demanded by bureaucracy and survival. ‘It doesn’t seem like it,’ he remarks, ‘but the movie is about anxiety’.
Estrangeiros vibrates with subtle tensions like these. Even the location of installations provokes an unsettling twinge: although open to anyone, the necessity of their placement in aloof spaces limits access of the broader public to these temporary occupations. There is a sad irony in the alienation of artworks that bring such fascinating depth and nuance to an issue that, as the organisers note, is often narrated in the language of clichés and over-simplified dichotomies.
Intellectually and emotionally, Estrangeiros is an incredibly stimulating exhibition. Surprising, relevant and powerful, neither obvious nor obtuse – in a nutshell, my idea of perfect art. But speaking of art. Let me go find some beer.